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Find Your Way Forward When Change is Elusive

Find Your Way Forward When Change is Elusive

When you truly want to change but still can’t create traction, you are likely experiencing an “immunity to change.” It’s time to step back and take a closer look.

Written by:Tara A. Collison, Ph.D.

Thinking of ourselves “on the other side” of change is generally fun, but the journey from here to there is a challenge. Change doesn’t unfold for anyone; it’s hard work and requires us to get uncomfortable. Our lives have many layers — work, family, health, hobbies — and all of these things compete for our time and attention. It turns out our own values and habits play a role as well. Too often, when we make a commitment to change or want to invest in something important, we dive straight into action and find ourselves struggling.

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to write a book. Your plan — highly important if you want to change — is to spend two hours every day writing. If you miss a day, you’ll make up for it the following day. You also intend to turn off any news and social media alerts on your phone between 8 and 10 pm, just to be on the safe side. However, despite a seemingly reasonable plan, you might find that you only wrote on one night the entire week. Then one week became two, and so on.  

So, what’s happening? Sometimes the struggle is simple and straightforward. You may find that you just don’t have enough time in your schedule. You may not have set up your habits and commitments to allow for the change. Other things take precedent. At some point, you either rearrange your priorities, change your habits or decide that now might not be the right time to make a change.

On the other hand, when you truly want to change, have established the time, space and structures to do so, but still can’t create traction, then something else may be going on. If this sounds familiar, you are likely experiencing what Harvard Researchers Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey dubbed an “immunity to change,” and it’s time to step back and take a closer look. How do you identify your competing priorities and hidden commitments that could be the foundation for an underlying immunity to change?

Identify Competing Priorities and Hidden Commitments

(Re)Framing Your Goal
It’s essential that we start at the beginning, because framing the goal you are working to achieve correctly is the key to finding which beliefs hold us back. Once your goal meets all the following criteria, you are on track to find your hidden commitments. 

  • Important to you: What’s the idea, goal, or work you want to accomplish? Examine its importance; reflect on how you would feel if you never achieved it. 
  • Under your control: You are the one changing — it can’t call for someone else to do the work. 
  • Framed around what you want to create: It should reflect the thing you want to do, not the thing you want to stop doing. In our example, your goal is not to reduce time spent in front of the TV or to stop getting bogged down by distractions, but to increase your writing time — to become an author. 

The Diagnostic Phase: Examine Your Behavior
When it comes down to it, what are you doing instead of your two hours of writing? Consider this the diagnostic or detective phase. Reflect and keep a log of what you are doing instead of writing. If it’s TV one night, homework with your kids the next night, and a fundraiser the following, write it all down in a list. 

Just as important, note the things you aren’t doing. Are you turning off your alerts like you planned? Are you forgetting key enablers like asking for help? 

Dig Deeper: Uncover Your Assumptions
Once you have a full list of the things you are doing or not doing, the temptation will be to solve those problems. That’s logical, right? However, what you want to do instead is dig deeper. Look at each behavior and imagine doing the opposite. While you do that, what fears or worries come up for you? Those fears and worries are clues about the real challenge. 

Ask yourself, what about not doing that thing — watching TV or helping your kids — would make you uncomfortable? What’s your biggest concern? For example: “I worry that I will look uninformed at work if I don’t keep up with current events on the news,” “I worry I’ll look like a bad mom if I don’t help the kids when they need it,” or maybe, “I worry my kid’s teachers will think I’m not involved enough.” 

Examine these fears for common themes and your hidden commitments will start to emerge. In this case, those commitments might be something like, “I’m committed to making it look like I can do it all.” Our hidden commitments are reflective of a deeper set of values or assumptions we have about the world and ourselves, and they can become a source of internal conflict. To address that conflict, Keegan and Lahey advise you to document those assumptions. In our example, this could be the assumption that being independent means you do everything yourself and never need to ask for help.

Uncover your assumptions by applying “If __, then __” parameters to your competing priorities. “If I ask for help, then I'm not truly independent”. Kegan and Lahey say you’ll feel a “sense of ‘oh, this is why I’m stuck’ — even if part of you can see the assumption as flawed or at least questionable.” The assumptions you make are likely the beliefs that are holding you back. Now, it’s time to test your own assumptions against your goals. 

Conduct an Experiment: Test Assumptions, Not Behaviors
The natural desire to problem-solve will show up again here. The key is to start small with specific experiments that allow you to test and evolve your thinking about your big assumptions. In our example, what would it be like to ask your spouse or partner to help with the kids? 

Then, step back and see what happens...

  • What was the worst consequence? 
  • Was it as bad as you thought? 
  • Was your independence questioned when you asked for help? 

Once you’ve tested your hidden commitments, you often find the assumptions you’ve been making are preventing your progress. Your behavior could be counterproductive or in your best interest; that’s up to you to determine. You can choose to lean in or break free based on what you learn. Either way, you’ve surfaced your true values and beliefs and have a clear foundation for what is important to you. 

Next comes systemic change. This January, we’ll discuss the best way to leverage and change your habits to make a lasting transformation. Stay tuned!

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